Japanese Woodblock Prints at the Palmer Art Museum

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Japanese Woodblock Prints at the Palmer Art Museum
Kitagawa Utamaro, Playing Shuttlecocks at Ryogoku, Series of 3 large color prints, Around the Kyowa era (1801-1804).

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA.- The Palmer Art Museum opened the exhibit Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints from the Permanent Collection through August 27, 2006. The art of ukiyo-e, which flourished in Japan during the Edo period (1603–1867), takes its name from the efforts of artists who, in opposition to tradition, preferred to find their subject matter in scenes from everyday life. Because these artists were sensitive to fluctuations in contemporary fashion and attitudes, their work became known as ukiyo-e, or "images of the floating world." The exhibition features about forty works selected from a large group of ukiyo-e prints that have been given to the Palmer Museum over the last thirty years by Penn State alumnus William E. Harkins (Class of 1942). Included will be examples by masters such as Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858), and Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786–1864). Ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world", is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints produced between the 17th and the 20th century, featuring motifs of landscapes, the theater and pleasure quarters.

Ukiyo, meaning "floating world", refers to the impetuous young culture that bloomed in the urban centers of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto that were a world unto themselves. It is an ironic allusion to the homophone term "Sorrowful World", the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release. The art form rose to great popularity in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.

Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were meant for mainly townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes punished for creating these sexually explicit shunga.

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